Living and travelling on the road full-time with no permanent address is a dream that many photographers aspire to. For American outdoor adventure travel photographer, Christian Schaffer, it's as much about the simplicity of freedom within the world as it is about exploring her autonomy and inner psyche.
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With an impressive client list in her portfolio, including Canon, the Dominican Republic Ministry of Tourism, Mazda, Land Rover and Samsung, this solo adventurer is a force to be reckoned with. Her photographs communicate a sense of the ethereal, almost as though the viewer is cast into a space somewhat akin to the seconds spent in limbo when waking from a dream. This week, we had the privilege of chatting with Christian about her journey thus far, the turning points which have shaped her career, as well as her thoughts on the impact that photography can have upon how we experience the world around us.
Christian Schaffer is an outdoor adventure travel photographer based in the USA. Photo by: 'Alen Palander'.
Hello Christian! Thanks for joining us this week. Tell us a little bit about yourself – where is home and what inspired you to become a professional travel photographer?
I’m an outdoor adventure travel photographer currently living in my van. For the past two years, the open road has been my home. I've packed up my life and moved on so many occasions, I’ve lost count. Officially, I’ve changed my mailing address at least 33 times. I've traveled to 36 countries, and I've lived in 5. This is usually the part where people assume I’m a military brat, but I’m not. Just a restless transplant. I was born in Arkansas, grew up in Wisconsin, and then decided to leave the Midwest and everything I knew for Hawaii. I sold all but four boxes of my belongings and flew to Oahu alone, where I didn't know anyone.
Over the next four years, I worked my way through college and graduated with a business degree at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. From there, I built a career with Abercrombie & Fitch as a store manager in Hawaii, California, colourado, and throughout the Midwest. At 25, I was promoted to Europe and relocated to Milan and then London to learn Italian and train as an International General Manager. Then, after 13 wild months of full immersion in Campania, South Italy (after which I still and forever will drive like an Italian), I decided the corporate life wasn’t for me.
Christian currently lives out of her van and travels for photography. Photo by: 'Christian Schaffer'.
I gave up my apartment in Italy, put my things in storage and travelled the world for eleven months. I eventually settled in California and began picking up odd jobs as a freelance assistant for various artists in Carmel. I spent time exploring the coast; trekking for 24 days along the John Muir Trail and road tripping through national parks. The natural landscapes I encountered on these adventures is what ultimately inspired me to teach myself photography and share my work.
Since then, I’ve been fortunate to work as a full-time creative while based on the west coast and also overseas. Two years ago, I gave up my apartment once again, this time to live out of my 4x4 SUV. At first, it was only an experiment in minimalism. A few months turned into thirteen months, and I eventually invested in a van and had it custom built for long-term travel. I simply fell in love with the freedom of the open road.
What has been the best source of information for you along your photography journey?
Without a doubt, my network. One advantage of moving so often and living in a steady state of change is that my community is constantly expanding. I believe there is something to learn from everyone, and I’ve been fortunate to cross paths with some truly inspiring and talented creatives throughout my journey who have generously offered advice and support along the way.
Christian has gained a lot of advice from other photographers along her journey. Photo by: 'Christian Schaffer'.
What were some of the real turning points in your career?
Five years ago, in Yosemite. It was 3am in the morning and fog was swirling through Tunnel Valley. I was there with four incredibly talented photographers, including Chris Burkard. I admire Chris not only for his photography skills, but also for his approach to everything in life. His integrity, lifestyle, mindset. We were huddled around our tripods, attempting to stay warm while waiting on long exposures. And in that space, Chris shared some really helpful advice about photography and building a business. His energy and passion for photography – especially at that hour – made me realise that I had similar aspirations. It was like a light bulb turning on; from that moment I began taking my craft more seriously.
Another more recent turning point was just a few months ago. I was shooting a commercial campaign for a car company and Jimmy Chin happened to be the guest speaker at a fireside chat. We connected over coffee the next morning and chatted about our love for the open road and living with less. I first discovered Jimmy Chin’s work ten years ago, while still working my corporate job. Actually, it was Jimmy who initially sparked my interest in photography. He’s genuine and down to earth; a true legend in the outdoor space. I never imagined meeting him in person, much less chatting over coffee. It was both humbling and affirming to be in that moment, and to marvel at how my often confusing, chaotic and winding path had somehow come full circle.
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You have a fascinating portfolio, covering landscapes and commercial photography as well as videos of your travels, van life and other campaigns. One thing that stands out is your whimsical style, which communicates a sense of freedom and being carefree in the world. In the beginning, what was the goal behind your work and how have you combined the different approaches with the style that you have today?
Thank you! Initially, the goal behind my work was simply to document and share wild spaces. Having grown up in the Midwest, I was continuously blown away by the landscapes of the west coast, and I just wanted to share those experiences. That is still my primary goal, though you are absolutely right that freedom is a driving theme. Freedom and simplicity. I try to keep my images as minimal as possible, whether in subject or colour. I really believe that less can be more, and I like to leave room for the viewer to bring their own imagination and feeling to a scene.
Christian's goal is to share freedom and simplicity. Photo by: 'Christian Schaffer'.
What kind of shoots are the easiest to photograph and which are the hardest?
Summit sunrise shoots are the hardest. Waking up anywhere from 2-4am to pack up camp and hike in the cold to a windy, freezing summit is definitely some type 2 fun. But it’s always worth it, and where I do my best work. The easiest kind of shoot is one where I’m very familiar with the location. Big Sur, for example. I know it well enough to sidestep location scouting and focus entirely on the creative process. That said, experiencing a new place for the very first time is easy to photograph in a different way – everything is fresh and exciting.
Big Sur is a location that Christian is very familiar with. Photo by: 'Christian Schaffer'.
- See also: Ultimate Guide to Sunrise Photography
During your career so far, which experiences have stood out the most?
Working with dream clients, expanding my network in ways I could have never imagined, and surpassing my former corporate salary as a full-time photographer.
What makes a good photograph in your opinion? How do you ensure that you’ll capture the best shot when you have limited time in which to shoot?
I consider a quality photograph to be one that evokes emotion, whatever that may be. I see photography as a visual conversation between the photographer, the viewer, and the art itself. When it comes to ensuring my own success, I’ve learned to simply trust the process. I prepare as much as possible, expect nothing to go as planned, and then allow creativity and intuition to take it from there.
A good photograph evokes emotion. Photo by: 'Christian Schaffer'.
Tell us about your van life and what our readers can learn from your experiences. How can they follow in your footsteps and take the plunge to live full-time on the road?
I could write an entire book around this subject. The short answer – van life is the college education I wish I’d had. There are so many peaks and valleys, moments of extreme joy and moments of intense challenge. I’ve discovered personal strengths, and also confronted some deep-rooted fears. On the road, every day is some kind of adventure. If van life is something you’re interested in, my advice is to take an extended road trip in your vehicle and try sleeping in it. This is easier if you have an SUV or hatchback, but if you don’t – consider getting creative. I have a friend who challenged himself to live out of a pint-sized Prius and still managed to fit Costco-sized groceries in there. If you can deal with sleeping in a passenger vehicle, a van will feel like a mansion on wheels. Another option is to rent a camper van and try that out for a few weeks.
A common barrier to this lifestyle is the reluctance to let go. I have always been a minimalist, but living on the road forced me to acknowledge that I still had more than I needed. I sold and donated 75% of my things before moving onto the road. I stored the rest in a 12x5 storage unit. It took me a year to reduce that amount to a 4x5 storage unit. This year, my goal is to close my storage unit entirely.
How does your experience travelling the world and capturing it all in photographs affect the lives of others? What do you hope your audience will gain from your travels? If your images have a message, what is it you would say they communicate?
My hope is that people will see my work and feel a moment of calm. Life can be messy and chaotic and challenging at times. I like to think an image has the power to remind people there is always some calm to be found in the chaos.
I also want to encourage growth and curiosity. So often we are told something isn’t possible, or isn’t socially acceptable, or that braving the unknown will likely lead to failure. Failure is part of the process, and essential to success. I hope that by sharing my journey, I inspire others to challenge fear-based culture and embrace the unknown.
Growth and curiosity are important aspects of landscape photography. Photo by: 'Christian Schaffer'.
Has there been a particular culture in the world that has had a striking impression upon you?
Many places have, but most especially the Middle East. I dated someone for many years who lived in both Bahrain & Egypt, and I would visit for months at a time – long enough to transcend the typical tourist circuits. I drove my own car, interviewed for work, went to a local gym. We also spent time travelling through Jordan, Oman, Israel, and the UAE. As a fiercely independent female, the culture shock was intense.
I remember one incident in particular, while travelling through Oman. I had reserved a rental vehicle in my name and paid using my credit card. There was a mixup with the type of vehicle and so we went to sort it out. The man behind the counter refused to engage or even acknowledge my presence. He would only speak to my partner, who would then speak to me. After twenty minutes of this, we still had no vehicle. I finally asked my partner to step outside so the attendant had no choice but to deal with me. I got the car, but more importantly – I walked away with a valuable lesson in the importance of respecting other cultures. My hair wasn’t covered, and I was wearing a tank top in the 105+ degree heat. He simply didn’t feel comfortable talking to me. That was just one of many eye-opening experiences I had in that part of the world. The combined effect has been a deep appreciation for my own freedom, rights and way of life. It has also made me realise that many people – women especially – don’t have the kind of freedom that allows them to travel or pursue a profession like photography on their own terms. I would like to see that change.
Christian has a deep appreciation for her freedom, rights and way of life. Photo by: 'Christian Schaffer'.
The impact of location-specific tourism upon nature, wildlife, culture and the environment is a discussion that often accompanies travel photography on social media these days. How can photographers travel and capture landscapes whilst making sure that they’re not having a negative impact on the environment they’re shooting in?
This is a great topic. Our natural environment has undoubtedly transformed as a result of increased tourism. Social media does play a role in that increase, both for better and worse. I personally don’t geotag a specific location unless it is easily recognisable – Yosemite Falls, for example. I generally only geotag the state, the country, or maybe the region. That said, I don’t believe the answer is to hide these places from the general public as a means of preservation. I believe a more difficult (but more sustainable) solution is to share these beautiful places in hopes of inspiring people to protect them. I recently read a book that recalled a highly successful campaign to reduce littering in Texas. “Don’t mess with Texas” was the slogan. Roadside litter reduced by roughly 72% over a three year period, as a result of Texans feeling a personal sense of pride and ownership in their state. Obviously there will always be outliers, but I think education and collaboration will prove more effective than exclusion in the long term.
Education and collaboration is needed to promote the protection of the landscapes that we shoot. Photo by: 'Christian Schaffer'.
One thing that comes up for a lot of photographers is how the need to document everything during their travels prevents them from being in the moment. How do you balance the creative process with simply enjoying your time, wherever you are?
Balance can be elusive, but with time I’ve learned to prioritise appreciating a moment over documenting it. Even though I love what I do, I really value time away from my camera. Sometimes I even leave my phone behind. I tend to photograph more when I’m alone or with one other person, and less if I’m with a group or in a crowded location. Sunrise at Mesa Arch is a great example of this. My first time at Mesa was a complete accident, nearly ten years ago. I went wild trying to document it then. I’ve since been back 4 or 5 times, and even though I get there well before sunrise, it isn’t long before 20-30 other photographers crowd around for the same iconic image. Those are the moments I put my camera away, wander to a place of quiet solitude and really allow myself to be present. That practice allows me to stay in the creative realm, and has often led to a fresh perspective.
It is as important to experience the moment as it is to capture it. Photo by: 'Christian Schaffer'.
These days, more and more young women are expressing themselves through photography. Do you have any advice or thoughts on how they can make their presence felt? Are you currently serving in some sort of mentor capacity to younger aspiring female photographers?
We are living in a very unique time that is overflowing with opportunity, especially for women who are willing to pioneer change. There are so many outlets for expression in the online space – personal blogs, Instagram, YouTtube, Pinterest, etc. It’s easier than ever to self-publish your own book, or create your own podcast. My advice – embrace imperfection. The first step is always the hardest, and if you find yourself procrastinating or trapped in the pursuit of perfection, try this hack. Replace a difficult task like “learn how to use photoshop” with something overly simple like “open photoshop”. It may seem silly, but sometimes even the smallest accomplishment will inspire the next step.
Christian's advice is to embrace imperfection. Photo by: 'Christian Schaffer'.
What are you looking forward to most this year? Are there any specific projects that we can expect from you in 2020?
I am most looking forward to the end of quarantine! I had quite a few trips and projects lined up this year that were all derailed in early March, when the realities of COVID-19 began to hit home. Hopefully travel will be on the horizon again soon. In the meantime, I’m focusing on creating new travel journal content and posting more often to my new Youtube channel :)
There are always new paths to follow. Photo by: 'Christian Schaffer'.
Thank you for sharing your thoughts with us in this interview! What are some final words that you’d like to leave with our readers?
Here’s the advice I wish I had five years ago. Decide what you want. Who you want to be, where you want to live, the work you want to do, the people you want to call friends. Describe your ideal self in detail, right down to the clothes you want to be wearing. Write it down, read it every day. Day by day, work toward becoming that person. Fail. Get back up, and fail better. And when the path becomes unclear, remember to replace fear with curiosity.
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